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Building 'green' not easy undertaking


MY WIFE and I are building a "green" home, mainly to live in but also to show how the biggest investment most of us will ever make can lessen our impacts on the environment.

The solar panels we've installed on the roof will supply about 40 percent of our annual energy needs. Wired into the power company's grid, they involve no muss, no fuss with storage batteries.

During daylight hours, they'll simply make our electrical meter spin slower - perhaps backward at times, feeding energy back into the grid faster than we're consuming it.

The benefits of reducing the electricity that needs to be generated from traditional fuels are huge. Burning coal and oil creates pollutants that harm human health and pollute the water with nitrogen and mercury as they fall on the bay and its watershed. And if you've ever seen a big power plant, don't you think it would be nice to build fewer of them in the future?

The current zeal to mine coal with techniques like "mountaintop removal" is trashing whole counties in West Virginia, and stepped-up exploration for oil and natural gas is scarring public lands across the American West and threatening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Burning fossil fuels worsens global warming by generating carbon dioxide. While nuclear energy has no air quality problems, we have never resolved how to safely dispose of radioactive waste. And the worst downside of nuclear energy, a meltdown, is so bad that the industry needs government-subsidized liability insurance to survive.

Even windmills, an energy source well worth pursuing, have turned out to have more of an impact on migrating birds and people's favorite views than many supporters thought.

Politically, solar may be even more beneficial, reducing our dependence on foreign oil: Does anyone think a solar-powered nation would be mired as we are in the Middle East?

Yet, while we are happy with our personal solar decision, I wouldn't recommend it to most readers because of the cost. We're investing close to $30,000. We managed to offset this with a $3,000 grant from a laudable but impoverished state solar incentive that funded just 44 residential projects this year before it ran through its funding of $103,500.

I'd estimate our solar savings on utility bills will amount to less than a thousand bucks a year - perhaps much less, as we're making the house energy efficient in many other ways. My guess is we may eventually recoup our investment, as energy prices are deregulated next year in Maryland and as the price of oil keeps rising, but it will be many years. Don't look for homebuilders in Maryland to be including solar panels as an amenity anytime soon.

The good news is that this situation could - must - change. We need to stand up to the utilities who traditionally have ranged from cool to hostile on solar power.

Other states and nations are showing us the way. Had we built in New Jersey or California or Oregon, we'd have gotten up to $14,000 in incentives instead of $3,000 (which we were grateful enough to receive).

These states are spending tens of millions of dollars, compared with our $103,500. California aims to put solar on a million rooftops in the next decade or so, financing the billion-dollar cost with an assessment on utility bills. The state has teamed with Home Depot to offer solar installations direct to consumers.

Germany, which orders 39 percent of the world's solar panels (the United States uses 9 percent), requires utilities to buy any excess energy generated by solar panels at 15 percent to 20 percent more than the going rate for conventionally generated electricity.

This has made solar a great investment, attracting venture capital and a rush by homeowners and businesses to cover rooftops with photovoltaic panels.

Japan, which consumes 30 percent of the world's solar panels, began subsidizing solar in 1996, a program so successful that subsidies are now being phased out as the country continues adding some 50,000 solar homes annually. Neither country, incidentally, is sun-soaked.

So what must change? States like Maryland must recognize the immense benefits of moving away from traditional fuels, and see solar as a sound investment.

Our state must start allowing solar users to carry over excess power, fed back into the power grid during sunny months, to be used as credit during gloomier times of the year.

Nationally, despite new solar incentives of up to $2,000 per customer in the new energy bill, subsidies for coal, oil and nuclear still outstrip conservation and renewable subsidies by $12 billion to $1.3 billion.

Even bigger subsidies to these mature, traditional fuel industries don't appear on a balance sheet - federal support for railroads to haul coal, for instance, or taxpayers picking up the tab for nuclear disaster insurance.

Solar's not more expensive, just less supported.

It boils down to "political leadership," says Steve Kalland, a North Carolina-based solar expert.

"In New Jersey," Kalland says, "it was a few key people, including the state's utility commissioners, who stood up and said 'We're going to make renewable energy happen.' This is how it's happened in state after state."

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